The Persian Gulf crisis is both a curse and a blessing for Moslems in this country.

On the one hand, it has pitted one nation of Moslems, Iraq, against several other Moslem nations, dividing loyalties and stirring up confusion among those who champion the key Islamic tenet of unity.

"A Muslim is not supposed to fight a Muslim," said Abdullah M. Khouji, director of the Washington area's largest mosque, the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

"If you feel a little bit confused, you are not alone," Ahmad Zaki Hammad, president of the Islamic Society of North America, told 5,000 American Moslems in Dayton, Ohio, this week.

But hostilities in the Gulf, while rooted in economics and politics, also have focused public attention on a religion little understood by most Americans, providing Moslem leaders an opportunity to address various misperceptions.

On Thursday, Syria's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, spoke at a forum at the Madison Hotel called "The Need for Understanding -- the Role of Islam." In the parlance of Washington public relations, the 75-year-old sheik also "made himself available" to local journalists.

On Wednesday night, Sayyid Muhammad Syeed, general secretary of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, spoke about Christianity and Islam at a Roman Catholic church in Vienna. "Islam recognizes that Judaism and Christianity are religions which have to be given their proper roles," he told a group of about 200 parishioners at the Church of the Holy Comforter.

Similar forums have been held all over the country, covered by journalists hungry to localize the international story. One way to do that, they have found, is to write about the rapid growth of Islam in this country.

Although it is difficult to say exactly, experts in comparative religion say there are 4 million to 6 million Moslems in the United States, including 1 million thought to be black converts.

There are about 2.5 million Episcopalians, a comparison the same experts make when pointing to declining membership in mainstream denominations and the rise of more fundamentalist traditions. In the Washington area, there are 50,000 to 75,000 Moslems and about 64,000 Episcopalians.

The growth of Islam here is evident in at least two ways: the 3,000 to 4,000 Moslems who worship every Friday at the Islamic Center, and the new center preparing to open in Arlington, which will include a mosque, school, library, research center, community hall, cafeteria, day-care center, funeral home and graveyard.

A few decades ago, the Islamic Center didn't exist. The idea for it surfaced in 1944 during the funeral for Munir Ertegun, ambassador to Turkey.

According to Islamic records, A.J. Howard, a Washington businessman, whispered to Egyptian Ambassador Mahmoud Hassan Pasha during the services, "Isn't it a shame that the prayer service for such a great Muslim is not held in a mosque?" Thirteen years later, the Islamic Center opened.

Islam, its proponents say, is particularly popular among men and women who are searching for discipline and a sense of history. Its prophet, Mohammed, in the 7th century, laid out a strict regimen of regular daily prayers and a healthy diet that forbids alcohol and caffeine.

Islam emphasizes the individual and his or her relationship to Allah, an attractive approach for individuals who feel neglected or discriminated against by established churches.

This country's Islamic imams, or teachers, preach for the most part a more tolerant message of peaceful coexistence with Christians and Jews than that advocated by the more nationalistic Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan.

Khouji, for example, said his primary purpose "is to teach people how to unite and enforce the concept of Muslim brotherhood, which is based mainly on equality and equal justice among people."

Other Moslems interviewed this week stressed that they believe in one God and one human family. They recognize the teachings of Moses and Jesus. Except for their diet and dress code, they said, they live pretty much the way other Americans live.

"Muslims are not a terrorist group who have nothing else to do but kill Americans and ask for hostages," said one man before going into the Islamic Center.

This desire for acceptance makes the turmoil in the Mideast that much more painful to mainstream Moslems, many of whom don't want to talk about it publicly. Especially troubling, they say privately, is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's use of religious themes to stir up anti-American sentiment.

Khouji's brief words at yesterday's service at the Islamic Center reflected that consternation. The crisis overseas shows there are three types of people, he said, including hypocrites who "claim to be Muslims but are not."

"Muslims are killing Muslims and not even one voice is saying anything," he said.

Special correspondent H.R. Harris contributed to this report.